Art

An Intimate Look at Charles and Ray Eames, from Their Creative Process to Their Home Life

The World of Charles and Ray Eames, which presents some 400 artifacts, is the first major survey of the Eameses since the 1990s.

Willis prototype chair (center) that inspired the iconic fiberglass chair form designed by Charles and Ray Eames, part of the collection at the Henry Ford Museum loaned to a traveling career-survey exhibition that made its US debut at the museum in May (all images by Doug Coombe and courtesy the Henry Ford Museum)

DEARBORN, Mich. — If you are feeling a bit disheartened by the current state of affairs here in the United States, perhaps you will find some consolation from this quote, attributed to Charles Eames, one half of the seminal Eames design duo, alongside his wife, Ray: “Beyond the age of information, there is the age of choices.”

This bit of heartening wisdom is important to bear in mind in wandering The World of Charles and Ray Eames, a career-survey exhibition that presents a mélange of materials that guided not only the duo’s creative process, but their home life as well. The exhibition, which originated at the Barbican Art Gallery in October 2015 under the curatorship of Catherine Ince, toured Europe before making its US debut at the Henry Ford, and is the first major survey of the Eameses since the 1990s. The show presents some 400 artifacts across multiple media — architecture, furniture, graphic and product design, painting, drawing, film, sculpture, photography, and more — and, as with the the Library of Congress retrospective in the 1990s, the Henry Ford was involved in the consulting process.

The World of Charles and Ray Eames, installation view

“The first go-round with the Eameses was in the ’90s,” said Henry Ford Chief Curator, Curator of Industry & Design, and Senior Director of Historical Resources, Marc Greuther, during a walk through the exhibition with Hyperallergic. “It was a collaboration between Library of Congress, the Vitra, and initially us. We pulled out of that one … but even in the ’90s, this would have been a big deal for us. We had the Herman Miller historical collection, which came in ’89 — the Eameses’s work has been understood here for decades as very relevant to our overall mission, and many of the things that we hold dear and want to present to the public.”

The Eamses and the wider school of influential thinkers during the midcentury modern era enjoyed a good deal of success in Metro Detroit and the greater Midwest, with connections to Cranbrook Academy of Art, an interest in mass manufacturing and fabrication that had roots in the automotive industry, the groundbreaking An Exhibition For Modern Living that debuted at the Detroit Institute of Art in 1949, and numerous private commissions for homes, churches, and interiors from their cohort by captains of industry of the day. It seems fitting that this newest look at their lives and work should debut at an American institution that has dedicated itself to showcasing many of their standout projects, including the kiosk they designed for IBM at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, numerous examples of their furniture designs, including those that are part of the Herman Miller Collection, and the entire contents of Mathematica: A World of Numbers … and Beyond — a triumph of interactive learning and information design which became the newest permanent installation at the museum last year.

Room set designed by Charles and Ray Eames in the “For Modern Living” exhibition at the DIA in 1949

The World of Charles and Ray Eames offers multiple views on the everyday life of this vanguard couple, some of which are a gratifying, deep dive into aspects of the Eames canon that are lesser run. Visitors enter the exhibition through an area that highlights some of Ray’s early solo work, which articulates her background in the fine art arena and lays claim to authorship of ideas about line and form that are so definitive to the Eames design aesthetic. While Ray’s talents are often associated with ephemeral elements — color, fragrance, and arrangement, for example — this section offers concrete evidence of her equal contribution to the pair’s foundational concepts.

Framed fine artworks by Ray Eames, prior to her marriage to Charles. The couple met as students at Cranbrook Academy of Art.

There are also several screening areas for rare and remastered prints of some of the Eames film work. One can see the pair’s appetite for innovation in new media. Visitors to the exhibition can see “THINK” (1964), which was projected on multiple screens in a large, egg-shaped theater as the centerpiece of IBM’s 1964 World’s Fair pavilion, and from it extrapolate the origination of the multi-screen technique that was cribbed and brought into popularity via the opening sequence of the original “Thomas Crown Affair” (1968). A large maquette for the “Ovoid Theater” from the World’s Fair design is on display alongside the information kiosk.

One of the screening areas for the films of Charles and Ray Eames; films on display include “THINK” (1964) and “Powers of Ten” (1977)

Greuther made the point that even more than their contribution to graphic and interior design or aesthetics, the truly resonant aspect of the Eames legacy may be their contribution to information design, which has, in turn, been deeply influential to exhibition design as practiced by institutions like the Henry Ford.

“Their last major splash in the 1970s, the Franklin & Jefferson exhibit — it didn’t fall on deaf ears, but it certainly didn’t ring true with a lot of people in the museum field,” said Greuther. “But their approach to critical massing of material, almost a form of information overload — in some ways it prefigures the kind of world we’re in now, with regard to information. I think that work continues to inform the way museum people think about how to modulate a museum experience.”

Detail from a model of “Case Study House No. 8,” designed by Charles and Ray Eames

Certainly, The World of Charles and Ray Eames offers information at critical mass — it is unthinkable to absorb its contents in a single visit, but for devotees or novices on the subject, it will be an embarrassment of riches to explore. In a sense, it is incumbent upon each of us who live in a world that inundates us with constant information to curate our own experience — to, in the words of the Eameses, follow the age of information with an “age of choices.”

The World of Charles and Ray Eames continues at the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation (20900 Oakwood Blvd, Dearborn, Mich.) through September 3.

The exhibition had to close unexpectedly due to a need for maintenance in the space and will not reopen before the closing date of September 3, but will continue along to its next location on schedule.

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